James Madison Papers

Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Delegates in Congress, 17 November 1780

Thomas Jefferson
to Virginia Delegates in Congress

Extract (NA: PCC, No. 71, I, 523–24). This document, in Theodorick Bland’s hand, is endorsed, “Extract of a letter from the govr. of Virginia dated November 17–80 referred to the Board of Treasury.” To this notation was added, probably by a clerk of Congress or the Board of Treasury, “Treasury Board 21st. Decr. 1780 Make two Copies of the Order of Congress of the 15th Instant respecting Specie from the state of Virginia. One for the Audr. General and one other for the Treasurer.” He erred in writing “15th” rather than “19th.” Also on the cover is ciphering which transmutes £1,318 15s. specie into 263,750 dollars in continental currency. Jefferson’s original letter to the Virginia delegates is lost. Bland evidently copied this long extract and presented it to Congress on 19 December 1780.

Richmd. Novr 17th. 1780


With respect to the payment made on behalf of Mr. Braxton1 into the Continental treasury in Part of our Quota of the fifteen Million tax,2 the Executive having been Charged with the raising and remitting that money, we have thought it unnecessary to lay it before the Legislature. The Sum to be sent, was sent, partly in Money and Partly in Bills. These Bills were drawn in Continental Dollars. and paiable in such, and not in Specie. of this nature was Mr. Braxtons Bill desiring his Correspondent to pay so many Continental Dollars into the Treasury. If the treasurer has received payment in another kind of money at an Arbitrary rate of Exchange, this must have been either under the Rules of his office or against them. The former I can Hardly Suppose, and in the latter case it has become his own Private act, and he should be deemed to have received (no[t] £1318–15 hard Money but) 263750 dollars Continental Money as he has I Suppose given a discharge on the Bill for so much of its Contents. Had he rejected the Tender of the Hard Money would not Continental dollars have been paid? if they had not, then indeed the demand should have reverted on the State, and we would have fallen on means for compelling payment. We were really concernd on the return of our agent who Carried the Money and Bills that he did not have them regularly protested as there appeard some doubts on them. But he acted for the best in his own Judgment, and in that point of view was to be approved. I am exceedingly Sorry that this want of Punctuality has arisen in these remittances. We sold Tobo. for these Bills, which would in Much less time have produced us money here. But the responsibility and known Connection between the drawer & drawee induced us to consider them as even Better than Money which wd. have been, liable to Accidents in transportation. Had a tender of Specie been made to us here we would certainly have rejected it. But the payment being now to be transacted between the Drawee & Congress (passing us over) neither the Tender or receipt can be considerd as our act, but the former the act of the Drawee, and the latter of the Treasurer of Congress. we do not therefore think ourselves concernd immediately in this transaction. if Congress please to Consider the Payment of £1318..15 hard Money as a discharge of 263750 dollars paper which was to be paid by the drawee[,] well: if not on rejecting it he will make payment in the Specific Money he was Calld on to pay or we will resort to the Drawer and Compell such payment.

Since writing thus far I note more particularly than I had before done, that the treasurers return sais that he had received from the Commonwealth of Virginia a Sum of Money in Specie, &.c. this indeed stating it as the act of this Commonwealth renders it necessary for me to disavow it—which I hereby do. it was the Act of the drawee of which the Commonwealth had neither knowledge or Intimation; and this return fixing the Act on the Commonwealth instead of the Drawee is so far wrong.3

&c. &c.

Thos. Jefferson

1Carter Braxton.

2On 7 October 1779 Congress resolved that, beginning on 1 February 1780 and continuing thereafter to 1 October 1780, the thirteen states should pay each month to the Board of Treasury a total of $15,000,000. Of this monthly total, Virginia’s quota was $2,500,000 (Journals of the Continental Congress, XV, 1150).

3In view of the fact that Braxton owed money to Virginia, and the state owed money to Congress, Jefferson permitted him to pay his debt to the state by remitting the amount of his obligation in continental currency to the Board of Treasury in Philadelphia. Braxton’s authorization to his agent in that city also specified that the sum should be paid with this type of money. Therefore, as Jefferson points out in this letter, both he and Braxton had conformed with the letter of the tax requisition of Congress and also with the stipulation of its resolution of 18 March 1780 that $1.00 of the new state emissions (or $1.00 specie) should be accounted as an equivalent of $40.00 of the old continental currency. In other words, not they, but the Board of Treasury, had broken the law by accepting the specie offered by Braxton’s agent at a 75 to 1 ratio, thus recognizing the degree of depreciation which existed in fact, even though the legal ratio was still 40 to 1. This error, in the words of the 1 November 1780 report of a congressional committee headed by Theodorick Bland, was “destructive to the credit of the new emission, and [would] have a fatal tendency to depreciate it” (ibid., XVIII, 1003–4). Accepting this report on 15 November after it had been recommitted and somewhat amended, Congress exonerated the government of Virginia from intentional wrongdoing in the matter and invited it to choose between a return of the specie or having it accepted at 40 to 1 (ibid., XVIII, 1057–58; NA: PCC, No. 136, IV, 621, 623, 635). Jefferson, of course, had not heard of this action when he wrote to the delegates, although he may have been informed by them, or by one of them, of the 1 November version of the committee’s report. As soon as Bland laid Jefferson’s letter before Congress on 19 December, JM moved that the Board of Treasury should record the transaction so that “the State of Virginia may not be included in it” (see below, Motion on Accounts of Carter Braxton, 19 December 1780).

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